The Shape Of Water (Cert 15)
US (2017) Dir. Guillermo del Toro
It has been said that you can’t help who you fall in love with and in some instances, this has extended to “whats” as well. History is rife with fantasy tales of men falling in love with mermaids, and lest we forget the evergreen Beauty & the Beast, so with equality a key issue in today’s society there’s room for another interspecies romance, right?
Set against the backdrop of Cold War America in 1962, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working as a cleaner at a secret government laboratory, able to communicate through sign language only. Her mundane existence is rocked when she and co-worker/interpreter Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are cleaning in the main lab when a new specimen is brought in under the aegis of brash military official Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Elisa’s curiosity towards the new “asset” leads her to sneak into the lab during her break, discovering it to be a fish/human hybrid (Doug Jones), apparently worshipped as a god in South America. Being the only person to show the creature any compassion, it warms to Elisa and they form a wordless but mutual affection but Strickland is intent on vivisecting the creature for research purposes.
Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to esoteric fantasy tales and The Shape Of Water fits neatly alongside his unique canon of gothic horror yarns like the sublime Pan’s Labyrinth and the elegiac Devil’s Backbone. Yet this would be arguably his most accessible work to date in this genre, in part because of the US setting, presumably helping the Academy’s decision to reward del Toro with Best Film and Best Director Oscars this year.
It is quite remarkable how conventional the script often is and how many familiar genre beats are present given the subversive storyline and del Toro’s propensity for reaching into very dark places for his fantasy outings. Not that this takes anything away from the film but del Toro does also play with our expectations, turning the occasional cliché on its head to prove he hasn’t lost his touch.
Essentially this is a love story at heart with the twist being the two star crossed lovers (yes, you read that right) happen to be a fish man and woman who can’t speak. It might sound like it should be a case of “ne’er the twain shall meet” or at worst, bestiality, but like all good stories, the key themes are empathy and understanding. Elisa is the totem of these simple qualities in opposition to Strickland’s “it’s not human so kill it” ethos.
An abandoned child found in a river with wounds on her neck, Elisa has struggled in life but clearly is made of sterner stuff than her fragile appearance suggests. Her best friend is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a single 50-something former illustrator living next door in their cramped apartments above a cinema, for whom Elisa cooks meals for as part of her Amelie-esque daily routine of bath, self-pleasure and boiling eggs.
The connection Elisa has with the creature is more than kindness and curiosity, as Elisa explains during one particularly poignant heart-to-heart with Giles – that she and the creature are both lonely, both cannot speak, yet these shared qualities mean they are the same. The preface is Giles referring to the creature as a “thing” but by pointing out the similarities in them, Elisa is still referred to as a person with a name.
Such emotive philosophy is the driving beat of Elisa’s plight and successfully earns the creature our sympathy to boot, along with the brutality meted out by Strickland and his taser baton. With Strickland being the alpha male he is (at home and at work) and an equally haughty superior breathing down his neck, the dynamic subtly switches to pose the question “who is the real monster?” as Strickland’s ego spirals out of control.
Like all good forbidden romances the differences between the love struck couple ebbs away the further into the story we go, to the point those differences are forgotten and we just want to see them happy. There is a touch of ET- The Extra Terrestrial to be found in the struggle to keep the creature safe from Strickland while the relationship itself is a loosely mature inverse of Splash (with added nookie).
A quick mention of a subplot involving Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is in fact a Soviet Spy, tasked with killing the creature on behalf of the Russians but like Elisa, he finds himself sympathising with it and helps Elisa protect it. If that sounds like a too much for an already busy plot, there is one scene late in the film where del Toro is either taking the mick or he simply felt he hadn’t thrown in the kitchen sink yet and this was the result.
Del Toro imbues the screen with an eerie aqua-green hue that takes us out of the norm and into the fantasy world from the onset, while nifty editing and subtle use of effects make for some smooth transitions and ethereal atmospherics. The creature is not CGI but actor Doug Jones in a suit and is wondrous creation visually brought to life by Jones’ nuanced performance.
The only word to describe Sally Hawkins as Elisa is precious. Her quirky pixie-esque features are made for a role that relies on physical expression, at the height of which the compulsion behind her pleading, emotion filled eyes threaten to rip your heart out. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins are the sensible support acts to Elisa’s romantic caprice while Michael Shannon’s mumbling Strickland is a real piece of work.
So, best film Oscar worthy? Open to debate but in my opinion, Pan’s Labyrinth remains del Toro’s greatest achievement thus far, but The Shape Of Water is a delightful and whimsical rallying call of support to the lonely and impaired, as well as a heartfelt love letter to cinema as an immersive (pun intended) visual medium.
Rating – ****
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